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For a better trade agency

In calling for a new cabinet-level department of international trade, the Reagan administration is throwing its support behind a proposal long advocated by financial and trade specialists. Many nations have established comprehensive trade agencies as a way of fostering exports. Such a super trade agency - pulling together the different export-related offices now scattered throughout the US government - is long overdue. Unfortunately, the administration plan would cause as many new problems as it would resolve.

The administration plan, still being hammered together by White House officials and not yet in the form of legislation, would reportedly be based on abolishing the present US Department of Commerce. The main trade agency within Commerce, the International Trade Administration, would be merged with the office of US Trade Representative, as well as other trade offices, to form the new department. The US Department of Agriculture, however, would continue to retain exclusive jurisdiction over farm exports.

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Thus the drawback to the administration proposal is that it would not be comprehensive - leaving out farm exports, a key part of US trade - and would kill off the Department of Commerce. But Commerce oversees more than just foreign trade. It also includes the US Census Bureau, the Patent and Trademark office, the Economic Development Administration, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Administration planners are now sorting out options on what to do with all these agencies. Some would be included within the new department.

The Commerce Department, for its part, has gone through many an administrative change over the years since its establishment in 1903. At that time it was called the Department of Commerce and Labor, representing the careful balance sought by the progressive Teddy Roosevelt administration in promoting both industry and the still-fledgling labor movement. Ten years later, in 1913, Congress split the department into its two separate components - Commerce and Labor - and both have continued down to the present time.

Would the US business community tolerate such a major dismantling of Commerce? That seems unlikely and would probably lead to a major political brouhaha in Congress - especially in the House. Indeed, prior administration proposals to dismantle or substantially modify the Energy and Education departments met little support in Congress.

The better approach might be for Congress to merge the various trade and farm export agencies into the existing office of the US Trade Representative, which handles trade negotiations. Or, alternatively, trade agencies could be brought together in one overall office within Commerce.

It should not be overlooked that the administration has already either cut back or talked about eliminating many of the functions of the Commerce Department. In the case of NOAA, for example, the administration has advocated spinning off various US weather bureau services to private forecasting firms.

A coordinated international trade office is necessary. But such an agency should not come about at the expense of destroying the nation's primary department concerned with encouraging domestic commerce.

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